A Northern Irish O'Bama


I'm writing this before the inauguration speech on Tuesday, which is being anticipated like no other political event in my lifetime... I hope it is not a letdown, and more than that, I hope that it is not mere rhetoric and that what comes of it is not a letdown... although I suppose against the backdrop of the current economic and international mess that the Shrub and his neo-con and big business mates have left, things can only get better... Although didn't someone come into power to that refrain about a decade or so ago!?

I'm sure there will be plenty of comment AFTER Tuesday, but what I'm reflecting on here is not so much the words and (hopefully) the actions that flow from them, but rather the man and the movement for change that he represents... Barack Obama has managed to position himself as the embodiment of a desire for change... Part of this is due to the skils of his team in using new media to court financial support and get out the vote amongst a demographic who until this election were increasingly apathetic... turning their backs on established politics. If they were involved in politics previously it was on special interest or local topics, but the vast majority had simply walked away from the democratic (small d) machine to get on with their lives.

Two weeks ago I was involved in a discussion with a small group of people who were bemoaning the growth of this self-disenfranchised group here in Northern Ireland... A middle class suburban/semi-rural group who haven't voted in ages and have progressively disengaged from wider civic society, particularly as many of them are also retiring from jobs in the public sector... But also a working class group who are increasingly frustrated at the lack of product for them and their communities by any of the established political parties... This seems to be more pronounced on the Protestant/Unionist side, but that perception could be down to ignorance on the part of that group, who on this occasion were all Protestants.

A few years ago everyone on Northern Ireland was looking for local versions of Mandela and De Klerk to lead us to a new reconciled future... Despite some attempts to portray themselves as such by Hume/Adams and Trimble/Papa Doc at various times, none has really fitted the bill... Nor should they... Mandela and De Klerk were functions of their place and time... Sometimes responding out of an almost transcendent vision, sometimes responding pragmatically... Our leaders were, equally products of our local situation... My only annoyance was the emphasis on pragmatism and the lack of a clearly articulated shared vision.

It is clear now that the political paradigms that have served us in the past here (perhaps ill-served us, but have certainly dominated relationships) are ill-fitted to lead us into the future. The rhetoric of nationalism of whatever hue, is might sell in some quarters but it will not be the rallying point for those who have progressively given up on democracy. We need a new paradigm... Perhaps the Ulster Unionists are being more realistic in teaming up with Cameron et al, even if it leaves left leaning Unionists with no-where to go but the PUPs, which will never be acceptible to some... The immediate future of political dialogue in this province of ours is not going to be primarily constitutional, but economic... It will largely be left-right, rather than green-orange... I also believe that, as with Barack Obama and Jim Wallis in the US, faith needs to have a role, but a radically different role in public and political life here. But no-one is really breaking cover from the current political and religious establishment to say that... Are they too comfortable within the over-resourced political system that we have, with more MLAs than there are in the Senate of the USA? Or are they too fearful of what will happen if they dare to say that the Emperor really has no clothes?

Just as I believe that we didn't need a Northern Irish Mandela and De Klerk ten years ago, I don't believe we need a Northern Irish Obama now. But we DO need a clearly articulated vision for a new Northern Ireland and someone to articulate it... And people prepared to give that someone the political cover to do so...

Any nominations? Any takers?



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